Lakers present mixed performance in 102-98 victory over Philadelphia 76ers
There Lakers guard Kobe Bryant stood at the free-throw line, with the Staples Center crowd wearing gold New Year's Eve hats while chanting "M-V-P." The volume and energy somewhat resembled a playoff atmosphere, but the reason why the fans stood on their feet pointed to the Lakers' failure to solidify an ordinary regular-season win against an ordinary regular-season opponent.
It's a good thing considering the Lakers need to properly pace themselves for the grinding effort to three-peat. But it was also a bad thing because it kept a game much closer than it should've been. Bryant wrapped up that dichotomy by hitting two free throws with 1.9 seconds left to secure a 102-98 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night at Staples Center. It also capped off Bryant scoring 10 of his team-high 33 points in the fourth quarter, including a 12-foot fadeaway jumper that gave the Lakers a 100-98 lead with 1:15 remaining.
"The ball goes into my hands and I have to make plays from there," Bryant said. "I know how to make those."
Bryant made plenty of plays, including two consecutive jumpers that gave the Lakers a 92-87 lead with 6:05 remaining and a 16-foot fadeaway to give the Lakers a 98-95 lead with 2:24 left. Bryant's late-game heroics should be reserved for marquee games and playoff series, not for a game against Philadelphia (13-20). The Lakers (23-10) had already developed enough bad habits in a recent three-game losing streak, only to show better effort and team balance Wednesday while winning at New Orleans. Against Philadelphia, the Lakers showed that foundation isn't firmly set yet.
"We play a ton of games in January so I anticipate that will help us get back in rhythm," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.
Yet in the present the Lakers had to manage a Sixers team that's demonstrated a youthful balance and a capability of picking up signature wins (Orlando, Denver) and giving teams fits (Boston, Lakers) under first-year Coach Doug Collins (whom Jackson initially worked for as an assistant with Chicago). But Jackson shouldn't have had to dissect the significance of Pau Gasol's block on Thaddeus Young with 58 seconds that prevented the Sixers from tying the score.
The Lakers led the entire way, yet Philadelphia made it awfully close, thanks to balanced scoring from Jrue Holiday (19), Lou Williams (18), Thaddeus Young (14), Andres Nocioni (13) and Evan Turner (12), exploiting the Lakers' poor transition defense with 18 fast-break points and punishing the Lakers for not closing out on the perimeter with a nine-of-25 clip from three-point range.
"We made too many mistakes," Jackson succinctly noted.
"I'm disappointed we blew the lead," Lakers center Andrew Bynum said, which was as large as 14 points at halftime. "We don't want to push ourselves in this position where we continually have games up in the air. We want to put the team away and put the ice bags on."
Fortunately for the Lakers, it wasn't simply an ugly win as their frontline made a significant step forward. In his second start since missing the first 24 games while recuperating from offseason surgery on his right knee, Bynum played 31 minutes, grabbed 15 rebounds and tested out a new brace he said fits better. Even though he only scored eight points on three-of-six shooting, Jackson described his effort as a "good game" because of his work on the glass and he showed plenty of dunks and put-backs that tested his jumping capability.
"I could've been more aggressive offensively holding the position," Bynum said. "I didn't really become demonstrative in using my size and force. Rebounding wise, I was there, the ball was coming to me today."
Gasol continues to appear more rejuvenated with Bynum easing his workload, scoring 20 points on nine-of-12 shooting thanks to beautiful hook shots, nifty footwork and even aggressive work offensively on the glass, finishing with a team-high five offensive rebounds.
"I'm going to try to find them and knock down shots," Gasol said. "I had good looks and I was aggressive in the lane to be effective."
And Odom's second stint off the bench featured his same consistency, where he scored 18 points on eight-of-13 shooting, consisting of cross-court drives to the baskets, finding teammates in open gaps and fitting in tight space to clean the glass. Jackson wouldn't laud Odom, instead saying he was "tired" and described him as a "lackadaisical guy," but Jackson's never shy about pushing Odom.
"I feel good," Odom added.
The Lakers' offense, statistically, rarely became a problem, with Ron Artest scoring 11 points on four-of-six shooting. That didn't appear to be the fundamental issue, with exception to Derek Fisher's zero-of-seven mark. But where it became a problem entailed those moments of lapses where a misfired shot or turnover contributed to the Sixers turning it into a momentum changer.
The Lakers clearly wanted to get this game over with in time to celebrate the New Year. Bryant, for one, jokingly wondered if reporters would fire questions at him until the clock struck midnight. But the Lakers' careless lapses mixed with the 76ers' hunger made a festive New Year's Eve crowd more anxious than happy. Hence, the passionate M-V-P chants. Thankfully for the Lakers, Bryant was there to deliver.
Said Gasol: "We trust he can deliver in that period of time."
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Photos: (Top) Lakers guard Kobe Bryant finishes off a dunk over 76ers forward Andres Nocioni in the first half Friday night. (Bottom) Lakers forward Lamar Odom glides to the basket for a layup past Philadelphia forward Thaddeus Young in the first half Friday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times